June 19 marked the conclusion of the Year of the Priest, intended by Pope Benedict to offer spiritual support to priests and appropriately to mark a century and a half since the death of St. John Marie Vianney, universal patron of the Catholic priesthood.
The pope’s intentions were warmly endorsed as parishes throughout the world scheduled prayers for Catholic priests who are fewer in numbers but awash in publicity as the 21st century begins. Yet not everyone was pleased with the pontiff’s selection of a 19th century country priest as sacerdotal patron. The Christian Science Monitor observed: “Those pushing a different model say that priests work in a world Vianney had no idea of – crowded urban parishes with high-powered professionals, including women; a world of counseling on drugs and pornography, violence, and the other ills that flesh is heir to in a spiritually confused and values-conflicted world.”
Indeed, modern America is quite unlike the rustic France St. Vianney knew. The 21st century’s urban world and the 19th century’s rural environment seem almost irreconcilable. This French country pastor’s vocation seems too romantic and too simplistic to be transferred over the decades to the modern world. St. Vianney famously spent hours in the confessional. He preached earnestly, if somewhat unimaginatively, denouncing the prevalence of blasphemy, the dangers of dancing, and the lack of Sabbath observance prevalent in his era. He baptized few babies, taught few children, witnessed few weddings, visited the sick, buried the dead, endured diabolical harassment, lived almost entirely on potatoes, and, most important of all, prayed the Mass religiously.
But even a pastor at Ars was not immune to the cataclysm taking place in the France that surrounded him. The French Bourbon monarchy of 600 years had been toppled with the beheading of King Louis and Queen Marie. The well-to-do fled to Belgium and to England. A reign of terror bathed the rest of Paris in blood for a decade. Religious congregations were expelled from France. Napoleon established himself as emperor and lost hundreds of thousands of young French lives while pillaging Europe. Even the pope was kidnapped and whisked off to Paris. The royal family returned in 1815, was exiled again in 1830 and again in 1848 when another Napoleon took charge. At least two archbishops of Paris lost their lives during these upheavals. St. John himself avoided Napoleon’s draft by working at an isolated farm. French seminary life was almost non-existent and vocations plummeted. The years of St. John Baptist Marie Vianney’s life were tumultuous.
The message of course is that the church in every era has its challenges, its confrontations, its contests. St. Vianney did not have to face urban drug addiction and conspicuous consumption, but he did have to face rural alcoholism and grinding poverty. St. John was not challenged by post-modern relativism permeating his culture but he was burdened by popular resentment against a church that had too long associated with royalty. Yet, although history has seen one obstacle succeed another over the years, the heart of the Catholic priesthood has remained the same since the Last Supper. If in no other way, St. John Vianney remains a model for every priest in his attitude, respect and reverence for the Mass. St. John observed very wisely, “All the good works in the world are not equal to the holy sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men, but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice of man to God, but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man.”
Unlike St. John Vianney who only had to minister to 230 persons and did not have to worry about health insurance and pensions for his parish employees, the contemporary priest can be easily distracted by managerial problems, secular attitudes, building maintenance, social issues, marital upheaval, religious indifference – and the like. Yet, exactly like St. John Marie, the modern priest stands at the altar every day reading the Scriptures, offering the sacrifice, consuming the precious body and blood, interceding for the assembled people. The centrality of daily Mass and St. Vianney’s awe at the altar are worthy ambitions for priests in every era and in every circumstance.